On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon asks the American people to support his decision to send troops into Cambodia in response to North Vietnam’s invasion of the country.
Richard Nixon took office in 1969 having promised to extract the United States from Vietnam through what he called an "honorable peace." Ultimately his strategy, heavily influenced by his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, became known as "Vietnamization." The plan was to shift the burden of fighting the war against communism in South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese Army. Nixon's order to invade Cambodia in 1970 was part of this strategy--he thought that the Viet.
Richard Nixon took office in 1969 having promised to extract the United States from Vietnam through what he called an "honorable peace." Ultimately his strategy, heavily influenced by his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, became known as "Vietnamization." The plan was to shift the burden of fighting the war against communism in South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese Army. Nixon's order to invade Cambodia in 1970 was part of this strategy--he thought that the Viet Cong was using bases within Cambodia to attack American and South Vietnamese positions in South Vietnam. In other words, he saw it as a defensive measure intended to bring about the stability needed to ultimately withdraw. Many Americans did not see things this way, however--to them the invasion looked like an escalation of the war, the opposite of what Nixon had promised to do. The invasion of Cambodia led to some of the most strident protests of the war, including the tragedy at Kent State. By 1972, the administration was locked in negotiations with the North Vietnamese government, and Nixon's decision to bomb Hanoi was an attempt to strengthen the hand of American negotiators (including Kissinger). The bombing of Hanoi, known as the "Christmas bombing," was one of the largest bombing campaigns in American military history. Whether it achieved its goal is open to debate, but the Paris Peace Accords, which ended US involvement in the region, were signed a little more than a month later. Still, this bombing campaign, like the invasion of Cambodia, was very unpopular in the United States, with even Republican politicians criticizing the decision as inhumane.
Vietnam War search for Cambodian “Bamboo Pentagon” headquarters
The entire Vietnam War is surrounded in controversy, but the attack on Cambodia is one that seemed the most needless and cost thousands of lives for both the north and south forces.
It is the invasion of Cambodia that made people back home in the US vehemently question the war and why the US was involved. It led to widespread rioting and violence back on US territory.
Now as new intelligence emerges it is thought that the invasion of Cambodia was because President Nixon believed that there was a secret Vietnamese headquarters based in the country. Both the President and military chiefs believed that if they could find and destroy the headquarters it would stop the North Vietnamese army’s progress towards the south.
The truth was that there was no headquarters located in Cambodia. The North Vietnamese leadership was fragmented and mobile with its forces fighting in Vietnam. Nevertheless, at the time the US was determined to take action on the intelligence it had received in order to try to debilitate the enemy and ultimately end the war.
President Nixon ordered his ground troops to invade Cambodia at the end of April in 1970, the Atlas Obscura reports.
US and South Vietnamese troops fought against not only the North Vietnamese army but also Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge when it invaded the country.
Back in the US the invasion was perceived negatively and the operation was stopped after only three months. Nixon lauded the operation as a success and that US troops had been able to infiltrate communist elements operating in Cambodia, but the invasion never located the enemy headquarters that the US had hoped they would find.
The CIA director during the Vietnam War later described the search for the enemy headquarters. He said that the US tried in vain to find a command centre of the North Vietnamese deep in the Cambodian jungle, but that it was never found. He says that the leadership of the North Vietnamese troops was probably only a few commanders and their officers, nothing more.
It is thought that if the Cambodian invasion had continued longer and the US troops were able to scour the country for North Vietnamese then they may have uncovered more than they did. But it was pressure from civilians back at home in the US that drew the invasion to an early halt. Some still believe that there may have been some kind of headquarters complex in the Cambodian jungles.
Nixon Orders Invasion of Cambodia - HISTORYStudent protesters face down riot police on Route 1, University of Maryland, 1970 (Photo source: University of Maryland Special Collections)
The May 4, 1970, antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio, in which National Guard troops fired into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the Nixon Administration's invasion of Cambodia and shot four of them dead, was a traumatic event that burned itself into the American collective memory. A photo of a teenage girl crying out in shock over the body of one of the slain students became, for many, the iconic image that captured a frighteningly turbulent time.
But it's almost forgotten that the University of Maryland's flagship campus in College Park was rocked by a protest that was bigger and possibly more raucous than the one at Kent State.
Thousands of demonstrators occupied and vandalized the university's Main Administration building and ROTC offices, set fires all over the campus, and blocked Route 1, the main road into College Park. Armed with bricks, rocks and bottles, the protesters continuously skirmished with police armed with riot batons, tear gas and dogs. As the campus raged, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel sent in National Guard troops in an effort to quash the uprising. Fortunately, unlike Kent State, no lives were lost at College Park.
Compared to some other campuses across the nation, the University of Maryland was relatively calm throughout the 1960s. But that all changed on April 30, 1970, when President Richard Nixon appeared on all three TV networks to announce he was officially expanding the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia. In truth, the U.S. had secretly begun bombing the neutral country, which was seen as a Viet Cong sanctuary, nearly a year before, and U.S. and South Vietnamese forces already had entered the country in April. (From the PBS website, here's more background on the Cambodian war.) But Nixon's public doubling-down on the war — just 10 days after he had promised to start massive withdrawals of U.S. troops from Vietnam — stirred outrage among students.
It didn't take long for UMCP to join in the tumult. On Friday, May 1, the unrest started with a noon rally in front of McKeldin Library, with speakers attacking Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia, a neutral country in the Vietnam conflict that the Pentagon saw as a communist ally. After about 45 minutes, according to a Washington Post account, an unidentified student got up and urged the crowd to march to the General Reckord Armory, the home of the school's ROTC program. Slowly, the crowd began moving. At the armory, students broke into the room where Air Force ROTC uniforms were stored, and began throwing them out into the crowd, chanting "Rotcee must go!" Meanwhile, upstairs, other protesters broke into ROTC offices, where they overturned desks and dumped the contents of file cabinets.
By 1:15 p.m., the crowd had moved to Route 1, where they blocked traffic. About two hours later, state troopers and Prince George's County police marched into the street in formation. They wore helmets and carried batons, and had gas masks ominously attached to their belts. The crowd dispersed, and for the next 90 minutes, the two sides stared at each other warily in a standoff. Then the crowd started moving south on Route 1, and began to block a different intersection. The police chased them and broke up the roadblock again.
But, the protesters didn't go away. Instead, they broke into smaller groups and ran across the campus, deflating the tires of police cars and committing other small acts of defiance. Near campus police headquarters, officers ordered students to disperse, and when they didn't, a melee ensued in which a student government leader was knocked to the ground. He was led away by police, with blood streaming from his head.
By 8 p.m., the angry crowd had again reformed, and by the Post's estimate, numbered between 1,000 and 1,200. Additional police arrived on the scene so 250 officers were there to confront the crowd. For several hours, the two sides stood waiting. Then, by the Post's account, the students began bombarding the police with bottles, eggs, and rocks, and the officers again charged, driving the crowd back across the campus. Tear gas was fired outside a women's dormitory, and the student protesters again fled and split up into smaller contingents. Finally, by 1 a.m., the battle had subsided enough that state police Lt. Col Tom S. Smith, who was in charge of stopping the unrest, felt comfortable enough to order his forces to head back to the university police station along Route 1. Meanwhile, at Gov. Mandel's orders, two companies of the Maryland National Guard went on standby alert.
That night, about 25 people were arrested, and 50 injured. The Post called the protest "the largest and most violent in the university's history."
The situation continued to boil over the next several days. On the night of May 3, with a crowd again blocking Route 1, local police and 250 state troopers showed up and arrested six of the demonstrators, and weren't able to reopen the road to traffic until 4:45 a.m. On Monday, May 4, Mandel sent in 600 National Guardsmen to assist the police.
It didn't stop things. The next day, after a morning memorial service for the slain students at Kent State and others killed in a protest at Jackson State College, an even bigger crowd of 3,000 again blocked Route 1 in the five-block area between Ritchie Coliseum and College Avenue. According to a Post account, protesters improvised fortifications by filling trash cans with firewood stolen from Fraternity Row, doors, sawhorses, and no-parking signs ripped from their moorings. To top things off, they dragged a piece of construction equipment from campus into the middle of the road and set it on fire, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the sky. As police intelligence agents appeared on the roofs of stores, protesters pelted them with stones. Just before 5 p.m., the police, brandishing nightsticks and accompanied by K-9s that occasionally snapped at crowd members, marched into the street and cleared it. They also began firing tear gas — reportedly 100 rounds of it, so many that a stinging cloud hung over the campus, even as it began to rain. Mandel declared a state of emergency, and put a National Guard officer, Adjudant Gen. Edwin Warfield III, in "complete command" of operations on campus. That evening, as helicopters buzzed over the campus, the beefed-up force imposed a nighttime curfew. Forty-eight people were arrested, according to news reports.
When protesters showed up two days later at the ROTC armory, this time they were met by 20 National Guardsmen armed with M-16 rifles with unsheathed bayonets attached. But unlike Kent State, no shots were fired. Gen. Warfield wisely instructed his troops to keep their ammunition on their belts and told them not to load it unless he gave a direct order. According to the Post, some protesters taunted the soldiers, but others "talked quietly to them or put dandelions in their rifle barrels." By early the next morning, the crowd faded away.
Even so, the university administration clearly was spooked. They announced classes would be suspended indefinitely, starting the next day, May 8. Word of that decision enraged many faculty members, and they passed a resolution condemning it and supporting the student strike. As the Washington Post explained at the time, "The administration, in a word, had radicalized its faculty." Fearing a revolt among its own staff, the university administration backed down.
On May 11, the protesters again rose up. At 2 p.m., after a rally, about 500 of them marched to the ROTC armory and occupied the gymnasium. Then they moved to block Route 1 once again. Windows were broken, and protesters set a fire inside the Shoemaker Building on campus.
By May 12, things had calmed down enough that University of Maryland chancellor Charles E. Bishop could show up on campus and give a speech entitled "The State of the University." The Washington Post reported that on the mall, "hundreds of students were busying themselves studying, playing with Frisbees, or sleeping in the sun." But that normality was enforced by 1,100 National Guard troops who remained poised just off campus, as a deterrent to anyone who wanted to rekindle the protest.
Here's a more detailed account of the protests, written by campus radicals themselves.
April 30, 1970 Nixon Announces Invasion of Cambodia
Vietnamization” and many people felt betrayed by the leader they trusted. Americans were led to believe that their sons, brothers, husbands, and friends would be coming home from that far-off place called Vietnam. Unfortunately the news of the invasion dashed their hopes as this could only mean escalation of an unpopular war including an increase in the demands of the draft. It meant more brave young men and women would die.
Nixon’s reckless action marked the beginning of a national protest that began on college campuses, including and in particular Kent State University in Ohio, where, on May 4th, just days after the announcement of the invasion, the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine. This singular event triggered a nationwide student walkout that forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close and changed the face of national politics for decades to come.
This is the first in a series of articles dealing with the Kent State massacre.
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The killing of four at Kent State is one of the most shameful chapters in American history and must never be forgotten. So much shame but never enough blame for those responsible.
Mr Scott thank you for this. I was a student at KSU back in the day, and although I wasn’t there on Monday, May 4th, due to sickness, I wonder what might have happened if I were because I’m pretty outspoken and I hated that war. My brother was in Vietnam when this happened.
I was a young man when his happened. And it forever changed the way I viewed the government. I’ve never trusted them since that day in May. A senseless act a senseless waste of life.
Well yeah the NG was probably scared shitless, i know I would have been but that’s no reason to start shooting at unarmed kids.
Thanks Mickey. We certainly agree on that one, as no doubt, with the exception of Jimmy, will everyone on this thread.
Maybe if they hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have scared the Guards and they wouldn’t have been fired upon. And I meant to say “they” above.
Oh yes, guardsmen armed with loaded weapons and wearing gas masks had every reason to be afraid of the students. That’s always the excuse of some moron with a gun when all they really wanted was an excuse to shoot something, anything, anyone.
It’s like gay panic defense. Oh I had to kill him/her because he/she was coming onto me and I am straight, instead of just saying to the person doing the coming on, hey I am flattered but I don’t swing that way.
If the students had fired guns at the Guards then that’s a whole new ball game (note I’m trying to speak American here as an English man) but they didn’t have guns. They had rocks and, according to Jimmy James, tear gas cannisters they threw back at the Guards.
What the hell in that itinerary justifies shooting dead college kids?
I would really like to know.
There’s no justification whatsoever, and no one is even sure they were given orders to shoot.
I asked that question, too. As usual when someone has no rational answer and knows it, the question was ignored.
There you go a full on military assault team gets a bit askeered when students gather in groups same shit different decade. Look no further than UC Davis students being pepper sprayed for just sitting down. Funny how it still can happen, that a bunch of gun wielding sociopaths can hang out in Nevada and the big gubbmint does next to nothing as far as taking them into custody but a group of Occupy Protesters gets tear gassed, arrested and some have been severely injured by militarized police forces in our country these days. Wait though they were the same dirty fuckin hippies like Kent State students, so they deserve that right, but the baggers in Nevada don’t because they are all god fearing uber patriotic real Amrucans. Yeah we will attack you because what you are saying makes no real sense that students deserved to be killed for going about the business of studenting.
Are you a complete idiot Jimmy? National Guard troops with rifles vs students with rocks? Maybe we need to just handle things like Russia or China. Does Tenniman Square ring any bells? Next we use tanks to break up protests.
You can argue that the guardsmen were young and scared but so was I and a lot of others in Cuba in 1962, and in Nam from 1966 on but we had to keep our shit together. It goes with the territory and the Guard does not draft anyone.
You can all attack me if you want but just before noon, the Guard returned to the crowd and again ordered the crowd to disperse. When most of the crowd refused, the Guard used tear gas. Because of wind, the tear gas had little effect in dispersing the crowd, and some launched a second volley of rocks toward the Guard’s line, to chants of “Pigs off campus!” The students lobbed the tear gas canisters back at the National Guardsmen, who wore gas masks. They shouldn’t have done that should thee?
OK Jimmy nice little paraphrase of Wikipedia there, but it makes no difference. It’s a matter of using only the force necessary to either make an arrest or maintain order. The guard used excessive force and people died.
Tell us all, exactly what did they do to deserve being killed? Have you never thrown a rock? Have you never taunted anyone? Have you been a blameless angel all your life? If not, perhaps you should consider that it could have been you.
I doubt that you will because, in your mind, they were wrong and deserved to be killed. Please don’t ask me what’s in my mind because you would not like the truthful answer.
There was likely a time or two when I deserved to be killed. I was lucky.
I’ve got days like that monthly Mike where, I wake up next day thankful my hubs hasn’t suffocated me in my sleep.
Personally I’m not attacking you mate. We all have opinions and they will invariably differ. All I’m saying is ‘should troops shoot kids’?
“The students lobbed the tear gas canisters back at the National Guardsmen, who wore gas masks. They shouldn’t have done that should thee?” –
No, I’m sure they shouldn’t but shooting them dead is a correct response?
The KSU riots were a bunch of students who had too much to drink initially but as the weekend passed it became more serious, and then it was too late. The soldiers were scared and the kids were scared, a dangerous situation to say the least. terrible thing.
Drunk kids = shoot them? Well, it’s a point of view I suppose….
Being an Englishman I didn’t actually know about that.
College kids were shot and killed.
Britain!! Stop copying America. NOW!
er…Mr Jimmy James…students mate…kids…you think kids should be shot? Oh dear…..
We are surrounded by fools Norman.
Those were scary days to be sure. I was a police officer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Home of the University of Alabama). There were 69 students arrested that night at UA but no injuries. Fortunately, I was out of town and did not have to take part in it. According to some of the police officers the football team had been organized by Coach Bryant to break up the student protest if the police had not gotten there when they did. I really wanted no part of it because I knew we were wrong to be where we were. I was a veteran and a student as well as a cop. Vietnam was one thing that never should have happened.
I visited the place where the shootings took place, and it’s a chilling feeling to look over that common and imagine being there on that day in May.
I was in the Army myself, stationed in Kankakee, Illinois. We heard it on the news and got a bulletin advising everyone to be ready for alerts due to expected riots on campuses. We thought the Guard did the right thing and were ready to do the same. How stupid we were way back then.
I was home sick from a bad cold when it came over the TV. Mom dropped a dish rushing to watch the news. It made us all sad about our country.
To my certain knowledge, Nixon was at least half a decade late in his announcement.
But the government has always ensured they were in a position to “disavow any knowledge of your actions.”
I heard those kids were burning shit and throwing shit at the troops so what did they expect flowers or something?
Jimmy clearly you don’t know your history. You see there were close to a thousand ARMED troops against about the same number of students, with the operative word here being ARMED, not the students but the troops. Now do you really think that was a fair fight?
WTF dude? Where did you go to school? Tea Bagger U?
Well Jimmy, I heard you fuck goats, go ahead prove me wrong about that. Seriously you are going with throwing things and burning shit. Seems like that has been the bagger go to deal for everything ranging from Nixon’s days to the Texas leg building just recently where women were supposedly bringing in jars of shit and used tampons. Get yer head out of your ass man and look at more than right wing sites for information regarding history.
Here! Here! You tell him Jess!
I’m just so fuckin tired of these nutjobs trying to rewrite a history that is still in the process of being lived. I’m guessing half of them don’t even know that a month before there was an uprising in Kansas where a bomb was put in the student union. There are plenty of great books and not so great ones about this event. I read a few of them for my AP classes in high school, even read one from a NG perspective so I could properly document it for the class.
It’s got me hooked Jess. I go to the memorial a couple of times a week, and it has had an influence on me. I do love Kent State University and am proud to be part of the faculty.
Me, I am just a dirty liberal hippie that hates injustice of any kind and I speak about it whether or not people want to hear. There are certain places that deaths should not occur, schools are right up there for me with a few other places.
I wasn’t always a liberal, on the contrary, although in my younger days I didn’t know about, or care about labels.
I would imagine being a police officer as long as you were, you were probably like many of them a tough on crime republican. It shows we can all change with wisdom for the good. Excepting of course that Joe Hagstrom fellow, he is just beyond redemption.
Well stated…and for context:
Substitute demonstrating students “throwing things and burning shit” (“But it’s really great shit, Mrs. Preske.”) with the impromptu militia assembled by Cliven Bundy. Now run that by me again. The National Guard was RIGHT to shoot unarmed students, while Bundy was RIGHT (perhaps in a different sense) to mount an armed insurrection against Federal authorities so he didn’t have to pay his grazing fees? ‘Splain that “logic” to me, Jimmy boy.
The world. Damned Republicans act like they own the place.
(Yes….I know, I know…following dalliances by Ike, it was Democrats Kennedy and Johnson who did the in or a penny, in for a pound thing.) But Nixon was the one who pledged to get us out, and then amped it up to a whole new level.
But, he wasn’t a “crook,” right?
He did make that promise, and that wasn’t a wise thing for him to do. From that day forward the people viewed Nixon as not one to be trusted and as it turned out that was an understatement.
I’ve a friend whose son was in that demonstration and saw the girl get shot. She says he was never the same since that event and he still has nightmares. What a terrible day that was. Thanks Mr Scott for this article, because we should never forget should we?
No Poxie we must never forget, and I for one plan to make sure that people don’t. Thanks for stopping by.
Word of the Day: THESAURUS
1 a : a book of words or of information about a particular field or set of concepts especially : a book of words and their synonyms
b : a list of subject headings or descriptors usually with a cross-reference system for use in the organization of a collection of documents for reference and retrieval
Did You Know?
In the early 19th century, archaeologists borrowed the Latin word thesaurus to denote an ancient treasury, such as that in a temple. Soon after, the word was metaphorically applied to a book containing a treasury of words or information about a particular field. In 1852, the English scholar Peter Mark Roget published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, in which he listed a treasury of semantically related words organized into numerous categories. This work led to the common acceptance of the term thesaurus to refer to "a book of words and their synonyms." The word developed another meaning in the 1950s, when thesaurus began being used in the field of word processing to refer to a list of related terms used for indexing and retrieval.
The Shadow War in Cambodia
A B-52 amid a sea of munitions bound for targets in Southeast Asia. Photos: USAF
Cambodia in 1969 was neutral in name only. The Geneva Conference on Indochina in 195?4 had declared it to be a nonaligned nation and the official designation was still in effect.
However, Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk, believing Hanoi would win the Vietnam War, had broken off relations with the United States in 1965. He permitted the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to use staging bases in Cambodia for operations in South Vietnam.
The Cambodian border with South Vietnam ran for 706 miles from the central highlands to the Mekong Delta. Along that stretch were at least 15 sanctuary bases, one of them in the “Parrot’s Beak,” which hooked into Vietnam only 33 miles from Saigon.
In addition, supplies moved unimpeded along the road from “Sihanoukville”—the port of Kompong Som on the Cambodian coast—to the North Vietnamese base camps.
The US command in Vietnam had for some time wanted to eliminate the Cambodian sanctuaries, but President Lyndon B. Johnson, unwilling to commit either to winning the war or getting out, would not permit it. His successor, Richard M. Nixon, was of a different mind.
On March 15, 1969, Nixon authorized the bombing of the Cambodian bases, insisting that it be done in secret. The North Vietnamese and the Cambodians would know as soon as the bombs fell, of course, but Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, hoped to keep it away from Congress and the press.
Between March 1969 and May 1970, B-52 bombers flew 3,875 missions against targets in Cambodia. This was known only to a limited number of Americans in the field and in Washington, D.C.
The North Vietnamese were in no position to complain because they denied being in Cambodia.
Secrecy was maintained by an elaborate scheme euphemistically called “special security and reporting procedures.” Missions were briefed and launched as strikes against targets in South Vietnam but the B-52s were redirected in flight to different targets nearby in Cambodia.
Records of the actual strikes were destroyed. The entries in falsified reports were for the original targets in South Vietnam. Selected officials were kept abreast of actual events through “back-channel” communications.
Operations in Cambodia moved into the open with a major “incursion” by US and South Vietnamese ground forces in 1970, but the secret B-52 missions—dubbed Operation Menu—did not become public knowledge until revealed in the course of dramatic hearings in the Senate in July 1973.
Sihanouk was having doubts about his bargain with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, who brought in more than 300,000 troops, took over several of the northern provinces, and drove out most of the Cambodians.
Mindful of the historic threat of domination from Vietnam, the slippery Sihanouk hedged his bets. In 1968, he all but invited an American attack.
“We don’t want any Vietnamese in Cambodia,” he told a US emissary. “We will be very glad if you solve our problem. We are not opposed to hot pursuit in uninhabited areas. … I want you to force the Viet Cong to leave Cambodia. In unpopulated areas, where there are not Cambodians—in such precise cases, I would shut my eyes.”
Nixon came to office inclined to take action. According to Kissinger, President-elect Nixon sent him a note before the inauguration asking for a report on Cambodia and “what, if anything, we are doing to destroy the buildup there?”
In February 1969, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams at Military Assistance Command Vietnam renewed his request for bombing the Cambodia sanctuaries. US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker supported the proposal but Secretary of State William P. Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird had objections.
“They feared the fury of Congress and the media if I expanded the war into Cambodia,” Nixon said in his memoirs. That was not exactly the case. What Laird opposed was the secrecy, not the bombing. “I was all for hitting those targets in Cambodia, but I wanted it public,” Laird said.
As Kissinger told it later, the secrecy was supposed to be temporary. “The original intention had been to acknowledge the first strike when Cambodia or North Vietnam reacted, which we firmly anticipated,” Kissinger said. “But Hanoi did not protest, and Sihanouk not only did not object, he treated the bombing as something that did not concern him because it occurred in areas totally occupied by North Vietnamese troops.”
Nevertheless, the administration went to exceptional lengths over the next three years to keep the operation hidden.
_You can read this story in our print issue:
The Pentagon sent a Joint Staff officer with deep experience in B-52s to discuss the options with Kissinger, and the outlines of a plan emerged.
Regular “Arc Light” missions, flown by B-52s from Guam against targets in South Vietnam, could be used as cover for strikes in Cambodia. Once they were airborne, the crews could receive new target directions.
The strikes would be controlled from the ground by the Combat Skyspot radar bombing system, which would guide the B-52s across the border to the exact location at which to drop their bombs.
Kissinger suggested the B-52 crews not be informed of their real destinations, but was told that the pilots and navigators, who had their own instruments aboard, would know when they were in Cambodia.
The list of those regarded as having a “need to know” was short. At Nixon’s direction, Kissinger briefed a handful of leaders in Congress. In the Pentagon, only the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a few others were in the loop. The Secretary of the Air Force and the Vice Chief of Staff were not told.
At Strategic Air Command, the commander in chief and one operations planner knew, as did a minimum number of people at US Pacific Command and at MACV and 7th Air Force in Saigon.
At Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, the commander of the SAC air division personally briefed B-52 pilots and navigators flying the missions, but others on the crews were not informed. All of the missions would be conducted at night.
A key point in the chain was the Combat Skyspot radar station at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam, manned by SAC personnel but under the operational control of 7th Air Force. In 1969, the supervisor of the radar crews at Bien Hoa was Maj. Hal Knight.
On the afternoon before a mission, a special courier brought the new targets to Knight in a plain manila envelope. His radar crews prepared the computations and computer input tapes and later that night, transmitted the target coordinates to the B-52s.
After the strike, Knight collected and burned every scrap of paper with the actual strike locations. The post-strike report was filled in with the coordinates of the original cover targets in South Vietnam.
As Army Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., commander of Field Force II in Vietnam, said later in his book, The 25-Year War, this system “placed the military in an impossible position, having literally to lie publicly about a perfectly legitimate wartime operation. It had nothing to do with keeping the operations secret from the enemy, who had to know all about them, nor did the decision have anything to do with enhancing the safety of the combat aircrews making the attack.”
The first strike was March 18, 1969, when 48 B-52s were diverted to the “Fish Hook” area of Cambodia, which juts into Vietnam just above Tay Ninh. The code name for the target was “Breakfast,” an insider’s reference to a key breakfast meeting in the Pentagon in February at which fundamentals of the plan were laid down.
The overall program was called Operation Menu. The targets were six of the sanctuary base areas, labeled “Breakfast,” “Snack,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” “Supper,” and “Dessert.” Palmer declared the code names to be “tasteless.”
As the Department of Defense explained later, each mission was “flown in such a way that the Menu aircraft on its final run would pass over or near the target in South Vietnam and release its bombs on the enemy in the Menu sanctuary target area.”
What Kissinger described in his memoirs as “the double bookkeeping the Pentagon had devised” was necessary to keep track of logistics data on hours and missions flown, which determined fuel and munitions required and the forecast for the number of spare parts to be ordered.
Security was not airtight. A sketchy article by William M. Beecher in The New York Times May 9 reported that, “American B-52 bombers in recent weeks have raided several Viet Cong and North Vietnamese supply dumps and base camps in Cambodia for the first time, according to Nixon administration sources, but Cambodia has not made any protest.”
At Kissinger’s request, the FBI placed wiretaps on 17 White House and Pentagon officials, but no leakers were caught.
Operations moved into the open May 1, 1970, with an “incursion” into Cambodia by 15,000 US and South Vietnamese ground troops to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases.
The incursion was welcomed by the new regime in Cambodia headed by Lon Nol, who had overthrown Sihanouk. He told the North Vietnamese to leave the country, and closed the port of Sihanoukville to them. Sihanouk fled to China and solidified his ties to North Vietnam.
In announcing the incursion on television, Nixon said that, “For the past five years neither the United States nor South Vietnam has moved against these enemy sanctuaries because we did not wish to violate the territory of a neutral nation.”
Operation Menu overlapped with the incursion for a few weeks, then gave way to non-secret strikes by US bombers and fighter-bombers, which continued after the incursion ended in June.
A massive wave of protests against the incursion by politicians, the press, and students followed. In December 1970, the Cooper-Church Amendment to the defense appropriations bill prohibited all use of US ground troops in Laos or Cambodia.
Among those bothered by developing events was Hal Knight, the Combat Skyspot officer from Bien Hoa, who was no longer in the Air Force. His misgivings about the falsified reports led to two bad effectiveness ratings. He was passed over for promotion and resigned.
In December 1972, Knight wrote to Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), a noted critic of the Pentagon, about the secret bombings. Proxmire forwarded the letter to Sen. Harold Hughes (D-Iowa), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading opponent of the conduct of the war. Hughes bided his time in making use of the information.
Air operations in Cambodia continued after the cease-fire in Vietnam in January 1973. The administration held that the bombing was necessary to force Hanoi to agree to a parallel cease-fire in Cambodia, as called for in the Vietnam accords.
In March 1973, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked the Department of Defense for records of air operations in Cambodia. The ensuing report did not mention any B-52 attacks before May 1970.
In the summer of 1973, the Senate challenge to air strikes in Cambodia reached the boiling point. Nixon, weakened by the expanding Watergate scandal and faced with a cutoff of funds by Congress, agreed June 30 to end the bombing of Cambodia by Aug. 15 unless he got congressional approval.
On July 12, Gen. George S. Brown—who in 1969 had been commander of 7th Air Force—came before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation as USAF Chief of Staff.
Senator Hughes asked him if there had been air strikes in Cambodia prior to May 1970. Brown immediately asked the committee to go into executive session, where he said the bombing had indeed taken place.
Knight was called to testify. On July 16, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger acknowledged that B-52s had secretly bombed Cambodia in 1969 and 1970. The Pentagon said “the destruction of documents and other procedures outlined by Mr. Knight had been authorized at higher levels.”
Laird, by then out of office, said that he had approved “a separate reporting procedure” but that he “did not authorize any falsification of records” and had not known about the burning of files or reports.
Kissinger told The New York Times that the White House had “neither ordered nor was aware of any falsification of records,” which he thought was “deplorable.”
Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, who had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Menu bombing, said that Nixon personally demanded the tightest security measures possible for the operation.
The military had devised the mechanics of the dual-reporting system, Wheeler said, but there was no “intent to deceive,” which would be the basis for any charge of falsification under military law. Key individuals in the chain of command knew the truth about what was going on.
A Pentagon report to Congress in August laid out the facts and figures of the operation and said that, “everyone in the reporting chain received and reported that information for which he had a need to know. Those who had no need to know about Menu could not perceive a difference between Menu and any other sorties.”
B-52s and other US aircraft flew missions in Cambodia up to the Aug. 15 deadline. Their efforts are generally credited with strengthening the position of the Lon Nol government and buying it a little more time.
The House Judiciary Committee in July 1974 declined to include the falsification of records in its proposed articles of impeachment against Nixon, despite some clamor that it do so.
Concurrent with the North Vietnamese invasion and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the Communist Khmer Rouge insurgents captured Phnom Penh, overthrew Lon Nol, and changed the name of the country to Kampuchea. Between two and three million Cambodians died in the reign of terror that followed.
Sihanouk came back along with the Khmer Rouge, who made him titular president, then put him under house arrest after a falling out. He was rescued when Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Even so, he defended the Khmer Rouge in remarks at the United Nations, saying the country’s real enemy was Vietnam.
In 1993, Sihanouk was restored as king, a title he had abdicated in 1955 in a ploy to gain greater political advantage as prime minister. He retained a figurehead monarchy for the rest of his life but no longer exercised any real power. Since 1997, the country has been in the firm control of the Cambodia People’s Party, which evolved from the Khmer Rouge.
_John Correll was Editor in Chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent article, “The Neutron Bomb,” appeared in the December 2017 issue.
Behind the Pentagon Papers: The beginning of Nixon's end
By Ken Hughes
Published December 24, 2017 10:00AM (EST)
Richard Nixon (Getty/Keystone)
Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Post” tells the story of the Pentagon Papers from the perspective of a single newspaper. The movie focuses on Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s decision to publish the Defense Department’s top secret history of the Vietnam War in defiance of the Nixon administration. The stakes are high. Nixon was the first president to claim the power to impose “prior restraint” on the press — that is, to block newspapers from publishing information he deemed injurious to national security by threatening publishers with imprisonment. Once the government convinced a federal court to grant an injunction against the newspapers, those who published the Pentagon Papers could be prosecuted for criminal contempt of court. President Richard M. Nixon remains a distant and shadowy figure in the movie, his voice heard briefly in excerpts from his (then) secret White House tapes.
A spoiler, even though this is all fairly recent history: “The Post” climaxes with the Nixon administration losing a showdown with the newspapers at the Supreme Court (and offers a brief preview of the greater newspaper drama to come for Nixon, the Post and America).
The landmark First Amendment case, while profoundly important, was only the public part of the President’s reaction to the leak. Privately, Nixon wasn’t much worried about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, since the secret history cuts off in mid-1968, months before he was even elected president. Nixon was worried about something else, something that could damage him politically — the potential leak of his own Vietnam secrets.
As the Nixon tapes record, the President quickly convinced himself that the leak of the Pentagon Papers was the work of a conspiracy that intended to leak his secrets as well.
Nixon suspected (incorrectly) that the Papers were leaked by three top officials in the branch of the Defense Department that had produced the secret history during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson: former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA) Paul C. Warnke his deputy, Morton H. Halperin and Leslie H. Gelb, director of policy planning and arms control for ISA. The White House soon learned the identity of the man who actually gave the Papers to the papers: Daniel Ellsberg, a defense policy analyst who had worked for the Pentagon, the State Department and the Rand Corporation. This news wasn’t enough, however, to make Nixon abandon his conspiracy theory about Warnke, Halperin, and Gelb. Acting on his conspiracy theory, the President initiated a real criminal conspiracy, the Special Investigations Unit, nicknamed “the Plumbers” because it worked on leaks. (The Plumbers came to public attention later, after two of its alumni were arrested for organizing the Watergate break-in.)
Nixon formed the unit for two illegal purposes. One was to facilitate the gathering and leaking of information about the theoretical conspiracy that was obtained through grand jury proceedings and other government investigations. The other illegal purpose was bizarre: to break into the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, where Nixon believed that the theoretical conspiracy had stored classified documents in a safe. The unit had legal purposes as well, such as gathering and declassifying top secret documents from Democratic administrations. “The Democratic Party will be gone without a trace if we do this correctly,” Nixon said. Even when Nixon’s means were lawful, his ends were partisan and political.
What dark secrets about Vietnam did Nixon have that he would go to such great lengths to hide? Two in particular: the Chennault Affair and the secret bombing of Cambodia.
The Chennault Affair
The Chennault Affair was Nixon’s secret effort as the 1968 Republican nominee to ensure that peace talks between North and South Vietnam did not begin before Election Day. Nixon feared, with good reason, that if peace talks got underway, they would boost the popularity of President Johnson — and of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The final month of the 1968 campaign was dominated by rumors and leaks that Johnson was on the verge of announcing the start of peace talks and a halt to American bombing of North Vietnam. Nixon saw his lead over Humphrey in the Gallup poll, 15 points at the start of the fall campaign, get cut nearly in half to eight points by mid-October and shrink all the way to two points by the final weekend of the campaign. (In the Harris poll, Humphrey actually pulled ahead.)
Throughout the campaign, Nixon had publicly promised not to interfere with the Vietnam negotiations. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Nixon said, “We all hope in this room that there’s a chance that current negotiations may bring an honorable end to that war, and we will say nothing during this campaign that might destroy that chance.” Secretly, however, he urged South Vietnam to boycott the peace talks even if North Vietnam agreed to them.
President Johnson learned of Nixon’s secret efforts in the final week of the campaign, after North Vietnam agreed to all of his conditions for a bombing halt. Johnson had several sources of information: cables from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., intercepted by the National Security Agency, a bug planted by the Central Intelligence Agency in the office of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and a wiretap that Johnson ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to place on the embassy’s telephone. Johnson learned that Anna C. Chennault, Nixon’s top female fundraiser, was contacting South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem, apparently acting as “ kind of the go-between ” for the Nixon campaign and the Saigon government, urging Saigon away from the peace talks. (What Johnson did not know was that Nixon had held a secret meeting with Chennault, Diem and Nixon Campaign Chairman John N. Mitchell in New York, months earlier. As Chennault later revealed in her memoirs, Nixon told the ambassador, “Anna is my good friend. She knows all about Asia. I know you also consider her a friend, so please rely on her from now on as the only contact between myself and your government. If you have any message for me, please give it to Anna and she will relay it to me and I will do the same in the future. We know Anna is a good American and a dedicated Republican. We can all rely on her loyalty.” John Farrell, author of the magisterial 2017 biography "Richard Nixon: The Life," discovered contemporaneous evidence Chennault spoke for Nixon himself: handwritten notes by Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman on an order Nixon gave on October 22, 1968 to “ keep Anna Chennault working on SVN [South Vietnam].”)
President Johnson announced a bombing halt and the start of peace talks in which South Vietnam “was free to participate” in a nationally televised address on October 31, 1968. Two days later, on the Saturday before the election, President Thieu publicly announced that the South would not attend the peace talks. That same day, the FBI wiretap overheard Chennault telling Ambassador Diem “that she had received a message from her boss (not further identified) which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are gonna win.’” Johnson was understandably outraged. “ This is treason ,” he thundered at Sen. Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen, R-Ill. Dirksen’s quiet reply: “I know.” Nixon, however, admitted nothing .
Nixon won the election by less than 1 percentage point and credited Thieu’s boycott with the small margin of victory he managed to eke out. Since President Johnson let him know that the government had detected the interference with the peace negotiations, but did not tell exactly what or exactly how, Nixon became understandably obsessed with getting his hands on every government document having to do with the bombing halt. In his first month in office, President Nixon ordered Haldeman to put together a complete report with “all the documents.” Haldeman assigned the project to Tom Charles Huston. During the Watergate hearings, Huston would become notorious as the author of the “Huston Plan” to expand government break-ins, wiretaps and mail-opening, all in the name of combating domestic terrorism. At the time, Huston was a little-known White House aide. He gave his bosses some bad intel. Huston said that ISA (the Pentagon division that produced the Pentagon Papers) had put together a report “on all events leading up to the bombing report.” He mentioned two of the men, who later appeared in Nixon’s conspiracy theory, saying that Paul Warnke had a copy of the alleged bombing halt report and that the responsibility for securing the file had fallen to Les Gelb, then a fellow at Brookings. There’s no evidence this bombing halt report actually existed. Huston or one of his sources may have been confused about the Pentagon Papers — which can accurately be described as a report on all the events leading up to President Johnson’s announcement of a partial bombing halt on 31 March 1968, in the same speech he announced his decision not to seek another term as president.
Nixon, nevertheless, was convinced. On his tapes, he can be heard ordering a break-in at Brookings to obtain the alleged bombing halt report. The reason Nixon gave his aides for wanting the report so badly was that he needed proof that Johnson had called the bombing halt for political reasons, to elect Humphrey. As motives go, this makes little sense. The diplomatic record shows that Johnson set three conditions for the North Vietnamese: in return for a bombing halt, they had to (1) respect the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Vietnam, (2) sit down with the South Vietnamese for peace talks and (3) stop shelling civilian centers in South Vietnamese cities. For most of 1968, Hanoi refused to accept any of Johnson’s conditions, but in October of that year, they accepted all three. The bombing halt took place before the election because that’s when Hanoi agreed to Johnson’s demands. Even Huston , who did his own bombing halt report for Nixon, concluded that Johnson was not guilty of playing politics with war in the manner Nixon alleged. Besides, Nixon had no need for blackmail-style leverage over Johnson, since there was little Johnson could do for him. Above all, breaking into Brookings posed an enormous risk. It was a crime that, if traced back to Nixon, could get him not only impeached but imprisoned as well. Why take such an enormous personal and political risk just to have something to hold over the head of retired president? The only compelling reason Nixon had to steal the alleged bombing halt report would be to cover his tracks regarding the Chennault Affair.
Sabotaging the peace talks to win an election was a violation of the Logan Act and a scandal waiting to happen, since the facts of the affair demonstrated Nixon’s willingness to put politics above the lives of American soldiers. In all likelihood, Nixon was afraid of leaving evidence of the Chennault Affair in the hands of men who had worked for one Democratic president and were likely to serve as advisers to his 1972 Democratic opponent.
The secret bombing of Cambodia
One of the first major decisions Nixon made as president was to send American B-52s to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia. North Vietnam used the Cambodian border area to infiltrate soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam, and the bombing was meant to disrupt that flow. It did much more, commencing a spiral of violent unintended consequences that quickly descended into disaster.
The first disaster was that the bombing drove the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia. They had no other direction to run to avoid the destructive power of B-52 bombs. If they moved north or south on the Trail, they’d still be bombing targets. The same would hold true if they fled into South Vietnam, since the U.S. had deployed B-52s on the South Vietnamese side of the border for years. The only way to avoid the B-52s was to head west, further into Cambodia. So they did.
That led to the next disaster. Rural Cambodians did not take kindly to the appearance of North Vietnamese soldiers near their villages. Some took up arms against the invaders. While Prince Norodom Sihanouk had kept Cambodia officially neutral regarding the Vietnam War, it was difficult to maintain neutrality when the country’s citizens and North Vietnamese soldiers were engaged in armed clashes.
Cue the next disaster: A right-wing coup that replaced Prince Sihanouk with a government that took a hard line against North Vietnamese infiltration. At first, this seemed like a pretty good thing for America. But Hanoi responded by sending troops toward the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, with the intention of installing a pro-Hanoi government headed by Prince Sihanouk, who was willing to abandon neutrality if it meant he could return to power. By April of 1970, Hanoi was close to achieving its goal. Nixon saw that as a looming disaster. If Hanoi got an ally on South Vietnam’s western border, its infiltration would increase and enjoy the protection of the Cambodian government. Nixon ordered American troops into Cambodia to avoid a great military setback, an action that did help keep the North Vietnamese from toppling the Cambodian government.
But the invasion of Cambodia spread the disaster into America, by touching off the largest antiwar demonstrations to date. The Kent State massacre occurred less than a week after Nixon announced the invasion, but the shooting of four students by National Guardsman was only one of many incidents of violence and unrest that erupted in the wake of the military action the White House minimized as an “incursion.” It drew greater public opposition than any previous escalation of the war.
And that was when Americans did not yet know that Nixon had, unintentionally, sent the snowball rolling downhill by secretly bombing Cambodia. More than a year after the invasion, he remained determined to keep Americans in the dark about the bombing.
Which brings us to the third man in Nixon’s supposed conspiracy, Morton Halperin. National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger had hired Halperin to work in the Nixon White House in 1969. Nixon hated having a veteran of the Johnson administration on his National Security Council staff. When some details of the secret bombing appeared in the Times in May of that year, Nixon had the FBI place a wiretap on Halperin’s home telephone. Although the tap produced no evidence that Halperin had disclosed classified information to any journalist, Nixon continued it after Halperin left the NSC staff in August 1969 — and even after Halperin started serving as an adviser to Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, D–Maine, then the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The leak of the Pentagon Papers revived Nixon’s fears about Halperin and the possibility that the secret bombing of Cambodia would leak as well.
What follows is a timeline of Nixon’s reactions, from the day the New York Times printed its first Pentagon Papers story (June 13, 1971) to the day after the Supreme Court ruled that newspapers could continue to publish the classified study (July 1, 1971). It traces Nixon’s swift descent into paranoia and lawlessness, the beginning of his end.
Sunday, June 13, 1971
The New York Times publishes part one of a series headlined, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing US Involvement.” The series is based on a 3,000-page classified study of “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” produced by the Defense Department’s International Security Affairs (ISA) branch in the final years of the Johnson administration. The study includes an additional 4,000 pages of complete government documents. It is, in the words of the Times, “the most complete and informative central archive available thus far on the Vietnam era.” The Times refers to the 7,000-page archive as “the Pentagon papers.”
Government deception emerges as a theme. The archive confirms that the Johnson administration had deceived Congress in August 1964 as it sought the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing the president to “take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States.” The administration had claimed that North Vietnamese PT boats had attacked American destroyers in the gulf without any provocation. “The Pentagon papers disclose that . . . the United States had been mounting clandestine military attacks against North Vietnam and planning to obtain a congressional resolution that the administration regarded as the equivalent of a declaration of war,” the Times reports.
President Richard M. Nixon’s initial reaction to the Pentagon papers is indifference: “ I didn’t read the story .”
Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig speculates that the Papers were leaked by four former Johnson administration officials who oversaw the study: Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford, Assistant Secretary for ISA Paul C. Warnke, Deputy Assistant Secretary for ISA Morton H. Halperin, and Director of Policy Planning and Arms Control Leslie H. Gelb. Haig’s suspicions will turn out to be unfounded, but Nixon soon forms a conspiracy theory about Warnke, Halperin and Gelb, fearing that they were leaking the Pentagon Papers as a prelude to leaking some of Nixon’s most potentially damaging secrets.
National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger says the leak will not harm the administration at home but will hurt its negotiating position vis-a-vis North Vietnam: “Basically, it doesn’t hurt us domestically. I think, I’m no expert on that, but no one reading this can then say that this president got us into trouble. I mean, this is an indictment of the previous administration . It hurts us with Hanoi because it just shows how far our demoralization has gone.”
Nixon and Kissinger privately denounce the leak as “ treasonable .”
Monday, June 14, 1971
The Times publishes part two of the Pentagon Papers series: “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before ’64 Election, Study Says.”
At his first meeting of the day, President Nixon expresses concern about leaks occurring during the 1972 campaign.
Nixon worries that Morton Halperin, one of Haig’s suspects, will reveal the secret bombing of Cambodia, code-named Operation Menu. “How much does Halperin know? Does he know about the Menu series?” Nixon asks Haldeman.
Nixon directs Haldeman to have a U.S. senator make a speech leveling the baseless accusation that the Pentagon Papers leak was the work of Leslie Gelb, another Haig suspect. Since there is no evidence to support this charge, Nixon suggests that the speech be made on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where senators enjoy the constitutional privilege of making any statement, true or not, without fear of legal action. “They can’t be sued,” says Nixon.
White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman says, “To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing, which is: you can’t trust the government, you can’t believe what they say, and you can’t rely on their judgment. And that the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do, even though it’s wrong. And the President can be wrong.”
Nixon rails against the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank where Halperin and Gelb have both become senior fellows. “Those people—that’s the Democratic National Committee!” says Nixon. “We don’t have one man at Brookings, Bob.” He directs Haldeman to have Brookings falsely implicated in the Pentagon Papers leak as well. “Charge Brookings. Let’s get Brookings involved in this. Get Brookings involved,” says Nixon. “It has to be done. Let’s smoke Brookings out. Smoke them out. And the way to do it is through a [congressional] speech probably better than an art—than a column.”
Haig tells Nixon that former President Johnson and former National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow think they know who was behind the leak. Haig says he spoke to Rostow “late last night and he said, ‘Now, I don’t want to cast any aspersions about who might have done this, but our strong suspicion is it’s Dan Ellsberg.’” Rostow does not believe Halperin or Gelb took part, says Haig.
“Ellsberg. I’ve never heard his name before,” says Nixon.
At 7:13 p.m., Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D. Ehrlichman calls Nixon to say, “Mr. President, the Attorney General [John N. Mitchell] has called a couple times about these New York Times stories, and he’s advised by his people that unless he puts the Times on notice, he’s probably going to waive any right of prosecution against the newspaper . And he is calling now to see if you would approve his putting them on notice before their first edition for tomorrow comes out.”
Nixon is reluctant. “Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to them,” Nixon says. Nixon asks if they can wait one more day, since the Times plans to publish part three of the Pentagon Papers series the next day.
Ehrlichman says Mitchell feels that the Justice Department must give the Times “some sort of advance notice.”
Nixon asks Attorney General Mitchell , “Has the government ever done this to a paper before?”
“Have we? All right,” says Nixon. “How do you go about it, you do it sort of low key ?”
“Low key. You call them and then send a telegram to confirm it,” says Mitchell. The Attorney General doesn’t mention that the Justice Department will threaten to seek an injunction blocking the Times from further publication of the Pentagon Papers.
“Well, look, look, as far as the Times is concerned, hell, they’re our enemies. I think we just ought to do it,” Nixon says. The President’s entire decision-making process for launching an unprecedented First Amendment case takes less than 10 minutes.
At 7:30 p.m., Assistant Attorney General for Internal Security Robert C. Mardian calls Harding F. Bancroft, executive vice president of the Times. Mardian requests that the Times cease publication of the Pentagon Papers voluntarily. If it does not, Mardian says the Justice Department will seek an injunction forcing it to do so.
An hour later, the Times received a telegram from Mitchell saying that publication of the Pentagon Papers is a violation of the Espionage Act. “Moreover, further publication of information of this character will cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States,” the telegram says. Mitchell requests that the Times cease publication of the series and turn over the documents to the Defense Department.
The newspaper quickly responds: “The Times must respectfully decline the request of the Attorney General, believing that it is in the interest of the people of this country to be informed of the material contained in this series of articles.” The Times announces its intention to fight the threatened injunction. “We will of course abide by the final decision of the court,” the Times says.
Tuesday, June 15, 1971
The Times publishes part three of the series: “Vietnam Archive: Study Tells How Johnson Secretly Opened Way to Ground Combat.”
The Times previews part four: “Tomorrow: The Kennedy Administration increases the stakes.”
Nixon orders White House staff to cut off the Times. “Until further notice under no circumstances is anyone connected with the White House to give any interview to a member of the staff of the New York Times without my express permission,” Nixon writes in a memo to Haldeman. “I want you to enforce this without, of course, showing them this memorandum.”
In the Oval Office, Nixon pounds the desk as he tells Haldeman, “Now incidentally let me tell you, it’s very, very important to get to Henry [Kissinger] right away on that. [Unclear.] He must never return a call to the Times. Never. Not [Times reporter] Max Frankel. No Jew. No nothing.” Kissinger is the one member of Nixon’s inner circle who is Jewish.
The president pounds the desk some more as he calls for the leaker to be prosecuted as a criminal: “Now goddamn it, somebody’s got to go to jail on that. Somebody’s got to go to jail for it. That’s all there is to it.”
Later, Kissinger says, “The reason you have to be so tough, also, Mr. President, is because if this thing flies on the New York Times, they’re going to do the same to you next year. They’re just going to move file cabinets out during the campaign.”
“Yeah, they’ll have the whole story of the Menu series,” Nixon says, referring to the secret bombing of Cambodia.
Nixon rejects the Times’ argument that publishing the Pentagon Papers serves the public good: “There is no cause that justifies breaking the law of this land. Period.”
Nixon privately denounces the Times, who obtained the Pentagon Papers: “Neil Sheehan of the New York Times is a left-wing Communist son of a bitch. He has been for at least 20 years to my knowledge.”
U.S. District Judge Murray I. Gurfein issues a temporary restraining order blocking further publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Times. It is Gurfein’s first day on the bench. He is a Nixon appointee.
Alexander M. Bickel, a Yale law professor and the Times’ lawyer, says this is the first time the federal government has tried to impose “prior restraint” — that is, to get a court order to suppress the publication of newspaper articles, so that any further publication would be punishable as contempt of court. “It has never happened in the history of the republic,” Bickel says. In 1931, the Supreme Court struck down a state attempt to exercise prior restraint. “It is of the essence of censorship ,” Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote.
The Justice Department files suit to make the court order permanent. The government argues that “serious injuries are being inflicted on our foreign relations.”
When Nixon realizes that the temporary restraining order means the Times cannot run its planned stories on the Kennedy administration, he says, “It’s the wrong time to restrain them.”
Attorney General Mitchell says, “Well, with the facilities we have in this government, if we want it out, we can leak it, and they’ll put it in the New York Times.” The president’s men laugh.
Kissinger tells Nixon that Olof Palme, prime minister of Sweden, said the Pentagon Papers prove that America paved the path to war with deceit.
Nixon says Palme’s statement is “ part of the conspiracy , in my opinion.”
“He wouldn’t otherwise pay any attention to it. Somebody got to him. Henry, there is a conspiracy,” Nixon says. “You understand?
“I believe it now,” Kissinger says. “I didn’t believe it formerly, but I believe it now.”
Wednesday, June 16, 1971
The New York Times suspends publication of the Pentagon Papers in compliance with the temporary restraining order, delaying publication of articles on the Kennedy administration.
In the Oval Office, President Nixon tells Haldeman, “Let me say that I think the Kennedy stuff should get out. I’d like to have somebody analyze if I could do that. Maybe, maybe [have] Haig do that. What does it tell about the Kennedy thing? Now the way it would be getting out is not to put out any documents, just to put out the . . . see, the injunction runs only to the Times, Bob. Right?”
“So let somebody else — just get it out to somebody else,” Nixon says.
“Well, if you release all of it to the Hill, then you can get a Hill guy to start talking about that. And if you declassify, you can declassify that,” Haldeman says.
Nixon tells White House Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler to tell reporters that “this administration is not trying to hide anything.” Information about ongoing negotiations over nuclear arms, Berlin, and Vietnam must remain classified, Nixon says. “The obligation of whoever is president of the United States is to protect the integrity of government,” Nixon says. “We’re not trying to hide anything, because we have nothing to hide.”
Ziegler tells Nixon that Newsweek is about to identify Ellsberg as the newspapers’ source. “He’s got to go to jail,” the President says.
“The stuff on Kennedy I’m going to get leaked,” Nixon says. “Only the New York Times is enjoined. Nobody else is enjoined. So now that it’s being leaked, we’ll leak out the parts we want.” [Conversation 523‑006, 16 June 1971, 5:16–6:05 p.m.]
The Canadian government objects to the account in the Pentagon Papers of its role as an intermediary between the United States and North Vietnamese governments.
Thursday, June 17, 1971
To deflect criticism, the White House seeks to persuade Johnson to hold a press conference condemning the leak. “The press would bait him, and he’d overreact, and it would become the battle between Lyndon Johnson and the New York Times,” Haldeman says.
Nixon tells aides to accuse the Times of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” the constitutional language defining treason. “They did this for purposes of hurting us, of course, and hurting the nation. Now they’re going to pay,” Nixon says.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist “Arthur Krock used to always say, ‘Never strike a king unless you kill him.’ They struck and did not kill. And now we’re going to kill them. That is what I will do, if it’s the last thing I do in this office. I don’t care what it costs. They’re going to be killed. If I can kill ’em,” Nixon says.
The President contemplates arguing the case before the Supreme Court. “[Justice Hugo] Black and the rest of them would take out after me like gangbusters, and I’d knock their goddamn brains out,” he says.
Nixon tells Kissinger to have one of his staff leak the section of the Pentagon Papers on President John F. Kennedy’s role in the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. “Now goddamn it, Henry, I want to get out the stuff on the murder of Diem. Get one of the little boys over in your office to get it out,” Nixon says.
“My guy shouldn’t put out classified documents,” Kissinger says.
“Get it out. I’m going to put it out. I want to see the material,” Nixon says.
“Mr. President, it’s in these volumes, and they’re going to come out one way or the other in the next few weeks,” Kissinger says.
“They aren’t going to use that,” Nixon says. “They won’t use the Diem part. Never.”
Haldeman suggests that Nixon try “blackmail” to get Johnson to hold a press conference. “Huston swears to God there’s a file on [the bombing halt] at Brookings,” Haldeman says.
The bombing halt file would show that Johnson had ordered the bombing halt for political purposes, Nixon says. “Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it,” Nixon says. “I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it .”
Friday, June 18, 1971
The Washington Post, having obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, publishes the first article in a series: “Documents Reveal US Effort in ’54 to Delay Viet Election.”
Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, D-Mass., calls on the Nixon administration to declassify the parts of the Pentagon Papers on President John F. Kennedy, the senator’s brother.
Twenty Democratic members of the House of Representatives announce plans to file an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief with Judge Gurfein in support of the Times’ right to publish.
Two House committees announce plans to hold hearing on the Pentagon papers.
Members of both parties call on the executive branch to furnish a copy of the secret history to Congress.
President Nixon visits Rochester, New York, then flies to Key Biscayne, Florida, for a long weekend.
The government seeks an injunction against the Post.
U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gissell denies the injunction, finding no evidence that publication would harm national security. “What is presented is a raw question of preserving the freedom of the press as it confronts the efforts of the government to impose a prior restraint on publication of essentially historical data,” Gissell says in the decision.
The Justice Department asks the Federal Court of Appeals to reverse Gissell ruling.
Saturday, June 19, 1971
At 1:20 a.m., after three hours of argument, a three-judge panel of the Federal Court of Appeals votes 2-to-1 to grant the government a temporary restraining order against the Washington Post.
The court allows the Post to continue printing its Saturday edition, complete with the second part of its Pentagon Papers series: “Johnson Administration strategists had almost no expectation that the many pauses in the bombing of North Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 would produce peace talks, but believed they would help placate domestic and world opinion, according to the Defense Department’s study of those war years.”
In New York, Judge Gurfein denies the government a permanent injunction against the New York Times. “This court does not doubt the right of the government to injunctive relief against a newspaper that is about to publish information or documents absolutely vital to current national security. But it does not find that to be the case here,” Gurfein says in his decision.
The judge does, however, extend the temporary restraining order to give the government time to appeal.
Judge Irving Kaufman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upholds the temporary order against the Times.
Sunday, June 20, 1971
The New York Times and the Washington Post obey the temporary restraining orders barring publication of the Pentagon Papers.
The Times devotes a front-page story to a White House statement arguing that legal action against the newspapers is necessary because the government “cannot operate its foreign policy in the best interests of the American people if it cannot deal with foreign powers in a confidential way.”
Time magazine reports that former President Johnson says the leak comes “close to treason” and the secret history itself is biased and dishonest. The magazine names no sources for the story.
Monday, June 21, 1971
The Boston Globe starts publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Globe reports that in October 1961, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor advised President Kennedy to send an 8,000-soldier combat task force to Vietnam. JFK declined, but increased the number of American advisers in South Vietnam to 16,000 over the next two years and increased covert actions against North Vietnam.
The government obtains a temporary restraining order against the Globe.
Judge Gesell refuses to extend the temporary restraining order against the Washington Post for a second day. “There is no proof that there will be a definite break in diplomatic relations, that there will be an armed attack on the United States, that there will be a war, that there will be a compromise of military or defense plans, a compromise of intelligence operations, or a compromise of scientific and technological materials,” Gesell says in his decision.
Minutes later, the Federal Court of Appeals stays Gesell’s decision and extends the restraining order another day.
Tuesday, June 22, 1971
The Boston Globe and Chicago Sun-Times begin publishing the Pentagon Papers.
The Globe reports that President Johnson’s decision to reduce American troops in Vietnam shortly before he announced a halt to American bombing of most of Vietnam, as well as his decision not to seek another term as president, on 31 March 1968.
The Sun-Times reports that the Kennedy administration had advance knowledge of the November 1963 coup d’état that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.
Sen. Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, R-Calif., says the Pentagon Papers in his possession show that the U.S. government “encourage and authorized” the Diem coup.
U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Julian issues a temporary restraining order against the Boston Globe.
Two U.S. Courts of Appeals extend the temporary restraining orders against The New York Times and the Washington Post.
President Nixon returns to the White House from Key Biscayne.
The President is briefed on opinion polls. Some results suggest great public opposition to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, others great support.
- Q: Do you think freedom of the press includes the freedom of a paper to print stolen, top secret government documents? A: Yes–15 percent. No–74 percent.
- Q: Do you feel the government is trying to suppress information the public should have? A: Yes–62 percent. No–28 percent.
- Q: Did the Times break the law when it published this secret material or was the publication legal? A: Broke the Law–26 percent. Legal–48 percent.
- Q: Even if it was illegal for the Times to publish the secret study, do you think they did or did not do the right thing in bringing these facts about Vietnam to the American people? A: Did the Right Thing–61 percent. Did Not–28 percent.
President Nixon reacts to the court rulings against him by privately railing against Jews and the Establishment: “I think of all those damn New York Jews are doing it. It’s the circuit court up there. And here in Washington it’s the Washington types.” [See Conversation 527‑012, 22 June 1971, 5:09‑6:46 P.M., Oval Office.]
Informed that Ellsberg’s ex-wife is testifying against him in grand jury proceedings, the President says, “You’ve got to get it out.” (Leaking grand jury testimony would be a violation of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure .)
“Now, wait a minute, wait a minute, I don’t want to go to jail,” Attorney General Mitchell says, provoking laughter in the Oval Office.
“Of course, if I’m going to jail, I want to go in a hurry, so I might get a pardon,” Mitchell says.
“Ha. You bet,” the President says.
“Don’t count on it,” Chief Domestic Policy Adviser Ehrlichman says, to more laughter.
Wednesday, June 23, 1971
The Los Angeles Times and the Knight newspaper chain begin publishing the Pentagon Papers.
The Los Angeles Times reports that in August 1963, one State Department official doubted that the Diem regime would last another six months.
The Knight newspapers report that in December of 1967, a group of outside scientists determined that American bombing had been so ineffective that the North had become a stronger military power than it was before the bombing began.
President Nixon announces that Congress would be allowed to read all 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers. He insists that they remain classified.
“The Kennedy myth is going to be tarnished by this,” President Nixon says privately.
White House Special Counsel Charles W. “Chuck” Colson says the Boston Globe story caused “great writhing in pain in the streets of Boston yesterday.”
Nixon wants the administration to declassify documents from foreign policy crises that occurred during Democratic administrations: World War II, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The beauty is we can do this selectively. We can look at it and put out what we want when we want,” Haldeman says.
Nixon sets the administration’s public line: “The president is doing the only thing he can. He has to carry out the law.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rules 5-to-3 that the Times can resume publishing the Pentagon Papers after Friday, June 25, 1971. The ruling, however, prohibits the Times from publishing specific material that the government says would endanger national security.
Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger says the newspaper will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nixon tells Colson, “Get [Rep.] Jack Kemp, [R–N.Y.], to demagogue. Tell him to get out and make, you know, irresponsible charges. That’s what they have to do in order to get attention. They say this is treasonable—treasonable—and, you know, don’t worry about it.”
Warnke tells reporters that the leak of the Pentagon Papers on diplomacy could cause problems. (Ellsberg did not leak the diplomacy volumes.)
CBS News airs an interview with Ellsberg.
Thursday, June 24, 1971
The Federal Court of Appeals rules that the government has not shown grounds to block publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post.
The government appeals to the Supreme Court.
The Baltimore Sun reports that after the 1964 election, President Johnson doubted that the air war against North Vietnam would be effective.
The government announces it is not seeking injunctions against the Los Angeles Times or the Knight newspapers “at this time.”
Friday, June 25, 1971
The Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments on the Pentagon Papers case during a rare Saturday session. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger signs an order extending the temporary restraints on the New York Times and Washington Post. Four Justices dissent, saying both newspapers should be free to publish.
The Justice Department announces it has a warrant for the arrest of Ellsberg on charges of “unauthorized possession of top-secret documents and fail[ure] to return them.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch starts publishing the Pentagon Papers with a story saying that in 1966 former Defense Secretary McNamara called the pacification program “a bad disappointment.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that President Johnson’s March 1965 decision to send 3,500 marines to protect the air base at Da Nang paved the way for the later introduction of American combat troops on a much larger scale.
Publishers, editors and journalists testify before a House Government Operations subcommittee that the government’s suppression of the Pentagon Papers amounts to censorship.
Saturday, June 26, 1971
Before the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold says publication of some of the Pentagon Papers would jeopardize American foreign policy. “It will affect lives. It will affect the process of the termination of the war. It will affect the process of recovering prisoners of war,” Griswold says.
Lawyers for the New York Times and Washington Post say the government is making “broad claims with narrow proof.”
“Conjecture piled upon surmise does not justify suspending the First Amendment,” says William R. Glendon, lawyer for the Post.
After hearing two hours of arguments, the Supreme Court adjourns without announcing a decision.
Ellsberg announces plans to surrender voluntarily to the U.S. attorney in Boston on Monday. His lawyers say he has not committed any crime.
The Justice Department rejects the offer, saying the hunt for Ellsberg will continue.
The Knight newspapers report that the U.S. military pressured President Johnson to expand the Vietnam War into the bordering nations of Laos and Cambodia in 1966 and 1967. The papers also report that in 1966, the Central Intelligence Agency informed Johnson that 80 percent of the casualties of American bombing of North Vietnam were civilians.
A U.S. District Court issues a temporary restraining order against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Monday, June 28, 1971
The government indicts Ellsberg on charges of unauthorized possession of secret documents and of converting government property to personal use.
Before appearing in court, Ellsberg says, “Obviously, I didn’t a think that a single page out of the 7,000 pages in the study would cause a grave danger to the country or I would not have released the papers, and from what I’ve read in the paper, the government has not made a showing that the papers contain such a danger.”
The Defense Department delivers a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Congress. Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird says disclosure would risk “grave and immediate dangers to national security.”
Tuesday, June 29, 1971
Meeting with his Cabinet, President Nixon threatens to fire the head of the agency from which the next leak comes. Chief of Staff Haldeman will be “the Lord High Executioner.” The President says 96 percent of the bureaucracy is against the administration. He says these employees are “a bunch of vipers that are ready to strike” and “left-wing bastards that are here to screw us. Now, this is a fact.”
“I want you to take the hard line that we cannot govern this country, you really can’t govern this country, if a man is not prosecuted for stealing documents,” Nixon tells Haldeman when they are alone. “It is tough, Bob. It is tough to live in this town. We’re going to fight. And we’ll have more on our side than you think. You know, we’ve got more on our side than you think. People don’t trust these Eastern Establishment people. He’s Harvard. He’s a Jew. You know, and he’s an arrogant intellectual.”
Wednesday, June 30, 1971
In the morning, the Christian Science Monitor reports that the United States “ignored eight direct appeals for aid from North Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in the first five winter months following the end of World War II,” citing the Pentagon Papers as the source.
The Supreme Court rules 6-to-3 against the government. Noting earlier rulings that “any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity,” and that the government “thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement of such a restraint,” the Supreme Court says that the government’s case left that heavy burden unmet. The ruling frees newspapers to resume publishing.
The Supreme Court issues nine separate opinions, one by each justice, none of them commanding the support of a court majority. This leaves unsettled for the time being questions of whether, and under what conditions, the government may exercise prior restraint on a free press.
The 6-to-3 decision “shows what these superannuated fools like [Justice Hugo L.] Black and [Justice William O.] Douglas, what they do to the court,” Kissinger says. “Because with two more appointments—”
“Yeah, we’d’ve had it,” President Nixon says.
Kissinger informs Nixon that Ellsberg has given Sen. Charles M. “Mac” Mathias, R-Md., some Nixon administration documents from 1969, “a bundle of documents of [Secretary of State William P.] Rogers’ memos to us, and our replies.”
The President responds with alarm. “They have some NSC documents?” Nixon asks. “Now, we don’t have any on Cambodia in there, in the NSC, do we?”
Kissinger doesn’t know what the memos cover. “If they drive us too far, I think you ought to go on national television with a charge of treason, and say this is what they’ve brought us to, and now you’re going to fight your campaign to stamp this out. I really think you ought to get on the attack,” Kissinger says. “The government cannot run if this keeps up.”
President Nixon once again tells Attorney General Mitchell to disclose information gathered in the Justice Department’s investigation of the leak: “Don’t worry about [Ellsberg’s] trial, just get everything out. Try him in the press. Try him in the press. Everything, John, that there is on the investigation, get it out. Leak it out. I want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear? It just has to be done.”
“We’ve got to do this. Otherwise he’ll become a peacenik martyr,” Mitchell says
Chief of Staff Haldeman asks Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird to send a colonel to Brookings to retrieve any classified material that might be in the think tank’s possession.
President Nixon demands a different approach. “I want them just to break in,” Nixon says. “Break in and take it out. You understand?”
“I don’t have any problems with breaking in,” Haldeman says. “It’s just in a Defense Department-approved security—”
“Just go in and take it. Go in. Go in around eight or nine o’clock,” Nixon says.
“And make an inspection of the safe,” Haldeman says.
“That’s right. You go in to inspect it, and I mean clean it out,” Nixon says.
Thursday, July 1, 1971
The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and St. Louis Post-Dispatch publish Pentagon Papers stories.
“The Pentagon’s secret study of the Vietnam war discloses that President Kennedy knew and approved of plans for the military coup d’état that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963,” the Times reports.
“The Times, to my great surprise, gave a hell of a wallop to the Kennedy thing,” President Nixon says.
The President moves forward with plans to fight potential leaks with leaks of his own. “We have to develop now a program, a program for leaking out information. For destroying these people in the papers,” Nixon says. “Let’s have a little fun.”
To fight the conspiracy he believes is out to get him, the president demands that his men take part in a real criminal conspiracy. “We’re up against an enemy. A conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out,” the president says. “Get on the Brookings thing right away. I’ve got to get that safe cracked over there.”
Bombs Over Cambodia
I n the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking ibm -designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Clinton’s gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and demining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.
The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed—not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide. The data demonstrates that the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous consequences. It therefore speaks to contemporary warfare as well, including US operations in Iraq. Despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.
We heard a terrifying noise which shook the ground it was as if the earth trembled, rose up and opened beneath our feet. Enormous explosions lit up the sky like huge bolts of lightning it was the American B-52s.
— Cambodian bombing survivor
O n December 9, 1970, US President Richard Nixon telephoned his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to discuss the ongoing bombing of Cambodia. This sideshow to the war in Vietnam, begun in 1965 under the Johnson administration, had already seen 475,515 tons of ordnance dropped on Cambodia, which had been a neutral kingdom until nine months before the phone call, when pro-US General Lon Nol seized power. The first intense series of bombings, the Menu campaign on targets in Cambodia’s border areas — labelled Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dinner, Dessert, and Snack by American commanders — had concluded in May, shortly after the coup.
Nixon was facing growing congressional opposition to his Indochina policy. A joint US–South Vietnam ground invasion of Cambodia in May and June of 1970 had failed to root out Vietnamese Communists, and Nixon now wanted to covertly escalate the air attacks, which were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army ( vc/nva ) in the Cambodian jungle. After telling Kissinger that the US Air Force was being unimaginative, Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country: “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in…I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”
Kissinger knew that this order ignored Nixon’s promise to Congress that US planes would remain within thirty kilometres of the Vietnamese border, his own assurances to the public that bombing would not take place within a kilometre of any village, and military assessments stating that air strikes were like poking a beehive with a stick. He responded hesitantly: “The problem is, Mr. President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war…in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.”
Five minutes after his conversation with Nixon ended, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders from the president: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?” The response from Haig, barely audible on tape, sounds like laughter.
T he US bombing of Cambodia remains a divisive and iconic topic. It was a mobilizing issue for the antiwar movement and is still cited regularly as an example of American war crimes. Writers such as Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, and William Shawcross emerged as influential political voices after condemning the bombing and the foreign policy it symbolized.
In the years since the Vietnam War,something of a consensus has emerged on the extent of US involvement in Cambodia. The details are controversial, but the narrative begins on March 18, 1969, when the United States launched the Menu campaign. The joint US–South Vietnam ground offensive followed. For the next three years, the United States continued with air strikes under Nixon’s orders, hitting deep inside Cambodia’s borders, first to root out the vc/nva and later to protect the Lon Nol regime from growing numbers of Cambodian Communist forces. Congress cut funding for the war and imposed an end to the bombing on August 15, 1973, amid calls for Nixon’s impeachment for his deceit in escalating the campaign.
Thanks to the database, we now know that the US bombardment started three-and-a-half years earlier, in 1965, under the Johnson administration. What happened in 1969 was not the start of bombings in Cambodia but the escalation into carpet bombing. From 1965 to 1968, 2,565 sorties took place over Cambodia, with 214 tons of bombs dropped. These early strikes were likely tactical, designed to support the nearly two thousand secret ground incursions conducted by the cia and US Special Forces during that period. B-52s—long-range bombers capable of carrying very heavy loads — were not deployed, whether out of concern for Cambodian lives or the country’s neutrality, or because carpet bombing was believed to be of limited strategic value.
Nixon decided on a different course, and beginning in 1969 the Air Force deployed B-52s over Cambodia. The new rationale for the bombings was that they would keep enemy forces at bay long enough to allow the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. Former US General Theodore Mataxis depicted the move as “a holding action…. The troika’s going down the road and the wolves are closing in, and so you throw them something off and let them chew it.” The result was that Cambodians essentially became cannon fodder to protect American lives.
The last phase of the bombing, from February to August 1973, was designed to stop the Khmer Rouge’s advance on the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The United States, fearing that the first Southeast Asian domino was about to fall, began a massive escalation of the air war — an unprecedented B-52 bombardment that focused on the heavily populated area around Phnom Penh but left few regions of the country untouched. The extent of this bombardment has only now come to light.
The data released by Clinton shows the total payload dropped during these years to be nearly five times greater than the generally accepted figure. To put the revised total of 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during allof ?World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history.
A single B-52d “Big Belly” payload consists of up to 108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 metres. In many cases, Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course of several hours. The result was near-total destruction. One US official stated at the time, “We had been told, as had everybody…that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.” Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.
The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas. scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
The Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge was winning over peasants. The cia &rsquos Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the Communists were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” But this does not seem to have registered as a primary strategic concern.
The Nixon administration kept theair war secret for so long that debate over its impact came far too late. It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress, angered by the destruction the campaign had caused and the systematic deception that had masked it, legislated a halt to the bombing of Cambodia. By then, the damage was already done. Having grown to more than two hundred thousand troops and militia forces by 1973, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh two years later. They wenton to subject Cambodia to a Maoist agrarian revolution and a genocide in which 1.7 million people perished.
T he Nixon Doctrine relied on the notion that the United States could supply an allied regime with the resources needed to withstand internalor external challenges while the US withdrew its ground troops or, in some cases, simply remained at arm’s length. In Vietnam, this meant building up the ground-fighting capability of South Vietnamese forces while American units slowly disengaged. In Cambodia, Washington gave military aid to prop up Lon Nol’s regime from 1970 to 1975 while the US Air Force conducted its massive aerial bombardment.
US policy in Iraq may yet undergo a similar shift. Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in December 2005 that a key element of any drawdown of American troops will be their replacement with air power. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting — Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of air power,” said Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Critics argue that a shift to air power will cause even greater numbers of civilian casualties, which in turn will benefit the insurgency in Iraq. Andrew Brookes, the former director of air-power studies at the Royal Air Force’s advanced staff college, told Hersh, “Don’t believe that air power is a solution to the problems inside Iraq at all. Replacing boots on the ground with air power didn’t work in Vietnam, did it?”
It’s true that air strikes are generally more accurate now than they were during the war in Indochina, so in theory,at least, unidentified targets should be hit less frequently and civilian casualties should be lower. Nonetheless, civilian deaths have been the norm during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, as they were during the bombing of Lebanon by Israeli forces over the summer. As in Cambodia, insurgencies are the likely beneficiaries. To cite one example, on January 13 of this year an aerial strike by a US Predator drone on a village in a border area of Pakistan killed eighteen civilians, including five women and five children. The deaths undermined the positive sentiments created by the billions of dollars in aid that had flowed into that part of Pakistan after the massive earthquake months earlier. The question remains: is bombing worth the strategic risk?
If the Cambodian experience teaches us anything, it is that miscalculation of the consequences of civilian casualties stems partly from a failure to understand how insurgencies thrive. The motives that lead locals to help such movements don’t fit into strategic rationales like the ones set forth by Kissinger and Nixon. Those whose lives have been ruined don’t care about the geopolitics behind bomb attacks they tend to blame the attackers. The failure of the American campaign in Cambodia lay not only in the civilian death toll during the unprecedented bombing, but also in its aftermath, when the Khmer Rouge regime rose up from the bomb craters, with tragic results. The dynamics in Iraq could be similar.
U.S. War in Vietnam
1945: Ho Chi Minh unifies Vietnam.
1946: Viet Minh, Vietnamese nationalists, attack French colonial forces in Hanoi.
1948: US begins funding French war against the Viet Minh.
1954: French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
1955: Ngo Dinh Diem, aided by the US, takes control of Saigon in South Vietnam and establishes the Republic of Vietnam. US advisors begin training Vietnamese army.
1963: Diem assassinated. 16,000 US advisors in Vietnam.
1964: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: After alleged torpedo attack on US war ships, Congress supplies President Johnson with a "blank check" to declare war on North Vietnam.
1965: US begins bombing North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder. Johnson commits 185,000 American troops.
1968: Tet Offensive: Viet Minh attack South Vietnamese provincial capitals belying American belief that the war is drawing to a close. US launches brutal counterattack. US troops execute over 200 men, women and children in the village of My Lai. The massacre is captured by an army photographer. US troops in Vietnam peak at 536,000.
1969: President Nixon endorses "Vietnamization" of the war, replacing returning US troops with South Vietnamese forces and secretly intensifying bombing of North Vietnam and Viet Minh supply lines inside Cambodia. Marines secretly invade Laos. US troops decline to 475,000.
1970: US troops invade Cambodia on April 30. Congress later bans US combat forces in Cambodia and Laos.
1971: South Vietnamese troops invade Laos.
1972: Hanoi launches Spring Offensive. US mines Haiphong Harbor and intensifies bombing of North Vietnam.
1973: Peace treaty signed between US, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam. Congress bans bombing of Cambodia, bans military expeditures anywhere in Indochina, and passes War Powers Act, requiring the President to consult Congress before committing troops. North Vietnamese force US military out of South Vietnam.